Rereading the RNC’s post-election autopsy, I remain impressed by its candor and honesty. However, I am also struck by the limitations of its honesty, by the things that authors of the report were forced to leave unsaid because they would strike much too close to home.
In three separate sections, the report repeats the following statement, word for word:
“The Republican Party is one of tolerance and respect, and we need to ensure that the tone of our message is always reflective of these core principles.”
In four separate sections, when discussing outreach to groups outside the GOP’s current small tent, the document’s authors repeat a second statement, again word for word, as if proposing it as a mantra:
“We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too.”
“Tone” is also a word that pops up repeatedly as a major challenge.
– “Too often Republican elected officials spoke about issues important to the Hispanic community using a tone that undermined the GOP brand within Hispanic communities.”
– “The RNC must more effectively highlight our young leaders and fundamentally change the tone we use to talk about issues and the way we are communicating with voters.”
– On messaging, we must change our tone — especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters.
Yet the report does not address the source of this clearly problematic tone. Is it some sort of accident, or maybe some cruel cosmic joke, that so many different groups feel aggrieved not only by the GOP message, but by how that message is communicated? (The report suggests that women and the legendary “47 percent” have likewise been given grounds to feel offended.)
If the tone is purely a matter of rhetorical style, then yes, it can be addressed through creation of what the report dubs the “Growth and Opportunity Inclusion Council.” Among other functions, the proposed council “will establish a training program available to all Republican candidates that would educate them on the particular culture, aspirations, positions on issues, contributions to the country, etc., of the demographic group they are trying to reach.”
That’s a laudable step. Unfortunately, the evidence strongly suggests that the problem runs much deeper than mere style. The GOP’s tone toward Hispanics, for example, is not some unexplainable phenomenon. It is instead an accurate reflection of a party base that is distrustful of and threatened by the Hispanic influx, and that expects its leaders to reflect that sentiment in its rhetoric. That’s not something that you can express “respectfully.” In fact, the same attitudes that drive the party’s tone toward Hispanics have driven its policies as well. Tone and policy are fruit of the same stem.
Likewise, the GOP’s tone and its policies toward the “47 percent” are predicated on a sneering lack of respect for those who for whatever reason have not yet managed to achieve the American dream. In the Republican world view, economic success is perceived as a legitimate, almost always accurate gauge of personal character. (Donald Trump ought to serve as a one-person repudiation of that theory, but for some reason does not.)
That belief sets up a reassuring logic circle: Those who need help are by definition not deserving of it. And those who are deserving of it clearly don’t need it. That’s the basic attitude of many in the base, and it is also the attitude driving the Ryan budget proposal. As long as that underlying attitude is reinforced by party leadership, trying to change the tone in which that disdain is expressed is like trying to teach a cow to ice skate.
To cite yet another example, the party’s harsh tone toward gay Americans reflects its harsh policies, and vice versa, because opposition to gay rights and gay people has been a uniting feature of the party for decades. It is impossible to expect the party as a whole to speak respectfully to and about gay Americans when in fact much of the party base does not feel that respect.
I don’t mean to disparage “inclusion councils” and other forms of attempted outreach. But the GOP’s tone toward those outside its circle will change only as its policies change, and the policies and tone together will change only as attitudes change.
For understandable reasons, those who drafted the report released today did not dare to press that point home.
– Jay Bookman